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The Africa Question: Should the U.S. Get Involved?

November 03, 1996|Michael Clough | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a research associate at the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley

BERKELEY — Central Africa is being remade. Tens of thousands are dying. Hundreds of thousands are on the move. A government is near collapse. War is imminent. And the Clinton administration has effectively fallen silent.

Since the end of the Cold War, more than 1 million Africans have died in Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and in several other less-publicized killing fields. Even greater carnage may lie ahead as Africa reorders itself. Yet, since the disastrous U.S. intervention in Somalia, Africa has received a pittance of attention in U.S. policy circles.

Earlier this month, in an effort to counter charges that the United States has abandoned the continent, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who has logged more frequent-flyer miles than any of his predecessors, made his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Along the way, the secretary hit all the right notes.

Quoting from a speech he gave in 1993, Christopher assured reporters that the United States continues to have a strong interest in Africa. Bowing to the view of many Africanists that too much negative reporting is one reason why it is so difficult to build a domestic constituency for Africa, he emphasized the democratic success stories in Mali and South Africa. To address the problem of conflict, he pledged substantial support ($25 million to $40 million) for the establishment of an African Crisis Response Force. By comparison, the U.S. intervention in Somalia cost more than $1 billion.

Two weeks later, with Christopher again preoccupied with other parts of the world, the administration's Africa team struggled with yet another African tragedy of potentially epic proportions. This time, the setting is eastern Zaire in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, where more than 1 million refugees, mostly Hutu, from Rwanda and Burundi have lived since fleeing conflicts in their neighboring homelands. By some counts, as many as 500,000 people are on the move to escape the cross-fire of an almost unfathomable array of antagonists.

The spark that evidently escalated the latest fighting were efforts by local Zairian officials to dispossess the Banyamulenge, a group of about 400,000 people of Tutsi descent who migrated to Zaire between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Banyamulenge retaliated by capturing a wide swath of territory along the Zaire-Rwanda border. Banyamulenge fighters have been aided by the Tutsi-dominated government in Kigali in order to weaken the Hutu militias who have been using Zairian refugee camps as bases for their efforts to regain control of Rwanda.

There is a growing danger that the fighting will soon broaden into a war between Zaire and Rwanda, sucking in Burundi and Uganda. Short of that, Zaire, already on the verge of anarchy, could erupt into civil war. If either of these scenarios come true, millions of lives would be put at risk.

Beyond Central Africa, there is a growing possibility of a deadly conflict in Nigeria, Africa's largest and most populous country. Meanwhile, there is little prospect of a lasting solution to conflicts in Liberia, Somalia and Sudan, and, as Christopher discovered during his stopover in Luanda, the peace in Angola is precarious.

Given these realities, the next president is almost certain to face some hard choices in Africa, choices that, ever since the collapse of U.S. efforts to restore hope in Somalia, the Clinton administration has sought to avoid. The problem is that there are no cheap and easy solutions to most of the conflicts that are tearing at the heart of Africa. They are deeply seeded and multidimensional.

In eastern Zaire, for example, the fighting is the result of a confluence of forces that include a long history of conflict between migrating populations; the divide-and-conquer practices of colonial authorities; Cold War policies that installed and protected autocrats like President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire; environmental despoliation caused by overpopulation and economic decline; more recent efforts by embattled politicians to foment ethnic hatred, and the collapse of effective national governance throughout most of the region. None of the palliatives being pushed by the Clinton administration, including the African Crisis Response Force and regional negotiations, is likely to do anything other than give administration spokesmen something to point to when they are asked what the administration is doing to help prevent African conflicts. The harsh truth is that a lasting peace in eastern Zaire, and in other troubled parts of the continent, would almost certainly require a rethinking of existing boundaries, substantial international assistance and, probably, the use of military force.

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